Friday, 6 April 2012

The Tale of the Indestructible Monkey


Vayu is the strongest of the gods. You may imagine that it is Indra, whose rain and thunder make him king, or Agni, whose fire binds the most important of oaths, or Surya, to whom the most potent hymn is dedicated, or even Varuna, whose oceans make even the mightiest tremble.

You imagine wrongly. It is Vayu who is the strongest.

Indra’s power has been forever diminished by his many sins. He killed the brahmin Vritrasura, he bedded Ahalya, he attacked Diti’s unborn child, splitting him into seven parts of seven each. He is nominally the king of the Devas, but he is no longer their most powerful. His defeat at the hands of Indrajit was merely the final proof; his fall had been assured long since.

Agni’s power has been on the wane since the Krita Yuga. It will reach a fatal low during the Dvapara Yuga, at which point some of his former splendour will be restored by Nara and Narayana. The sanctity of his vows have meant less and less with every passing age, in the Kali Yuga they will mean nothing at all.

Varuna is not interested in power. While his brothers have meddled in the affairs of men and Asuras almost incessantly, Varuna has been content to sit in his ocean palace, directing his gaze to his own domain. Despite his awesome power, it is this apathy that lost him his struggle against Ravanasura. It is also the same single-mindedness that made him bow before Ramachandra and his Brahmastra. He is the ocean, inscrutable and odd, never to be underestimated but not impossible to defeat.

Surya’s power was most potent during the time of Vishnu’s seventh incarnation, but Vishwakarma had already chiselled a part of it away as a boon to his daughter. His countenance no longer as great and terrible as it once was, he too could not claim the title of the strongest.

It is Vayu, air and wind, breath and life, who is the most powerful of the Devas. His sons have been the strongest and most faithful of all the heroes of all the stories. Listen, for this story is about the most loyal of monkeys, Maruti-called-Hanuman.

*

Hanuman was called Anjaneya at birth, for he was born of the vanara called Anjana. In truth Anjana was an apsara, whose home was Amaravati, the city of the Devas, and her mannerisms were as odd to the monkey-peoples as theirs were to her.

Anjana was the mortal name of Punjikasthala, She Whose Feet Are As Hail. When she performed for Indra, it was those same feet that bewitched the king of the Devas. But when the lecher made his advances towards her, he found himself spurned, his pride wounded. In his anger he cursed her, to lose her divine status and become a vanara, without civilisation or culture in which to dance.

However, he underestimated the apsara. Bereft of the marble floors that once hosted her arts, she used the forests as her theatre. The trees became her pillars, and the rivers became her boundaries. The vanaras of Kishkindha were mesmerised by her rhythms.

It was during a long night, when she danced the most beautiful dance of them all, that Vayu espied her from afar. Swift as an eagle in flight he came to her, for Anjana's eyes called to him like no other. Indra's advances might have been proud and uncaring, but Vayu was altogether more gentle than his brother and king. Where she had seen coldness in one Deva's arms, Anjana found warmth in another's. For many days and many nights they were lost in each other's embrace, until Anjana found herself with child.

Ordinarily, this would not have been a hindrance. Ordinarily, this would have been an occasion of joy to both parents, as children should be. But this was no ordinary occasion, for Anjana was a cursed apsara, and Pavana the brother of the one responsible for that state, and these things made the presence of a child infinitely more dangerous.

The last night they spent together was one of conflict. Their hearts and their heads argued, their minds and their bodies saying one thing and then another, until even the ever moving Deva of the wind grew tired, and rested in the arms of his lover. Though both knew it was an end, they were also immortal residents of Amaravati, and they knew that nothing truly ends.

Such was the parentage of Anjaneya, called Maruti.

*

To say that Anjaneya was a boisterous child would be to do an injustice to the sheer chaos that he inspired in his wake. Peace and tranquility were not exactly the hallmarks of the vanara people, but Anjaneya’s antics were epic in their scale. He once painted the entire courtyard of the vegetable market red, and left no proof whatsoever that it was he. Well, no proof but for his mischievous grin, which gave him away instantly. But Anjana handled her son with a stern hand and a fearsome countenance, and his pranks were not as dangerous or malicious as they could perhaps have been.

Anjaneya’s parentage was always a topic of gossip. Anjana’s husband, while a respectable vanara in his own right, could not possibly be his father, for he had married Anjana only after she had given birth. Even if that had not been the case, the child’s unnatural speed and strength marked him as being something other than just vanara. It would be some time before it was resolved.

The parentage of the princes of Kishkindha, however, was never in doubt. Vali and Sugriva were both geniuses, and the queen made it clear that they were born of the Devas themselves. In different ways, Indra’s son and Surya’s son were both scions of their race, but as royalty they were expected to be exemplary. Hanuman’s incredible abilities could not be explained as easily as his almost-cousins.

But in their mutual lack of contemporaries they found a rapport. No one can say how it began, but within weeks of their first meeting the three boys were inseparable. Being the princes’ playmate gave Hanuman an even bigger excuse to wreak havoc in Kishkindha, and they were only too happy to join in. However, when they somehow managed to steal the throne right out of the palace, all four hundred kilos of it, it was decided something had to be done. Even princes of the realm could not conduct grand larceny and face no consequences. So they forcibly sent Vali to the southernmost part of the kingdom, to live with the coastal vanaras. Sugriva was dispatched to the west, to meet his mother’s relatives. Anjaneya himself stayed in Kishkindha, but found that he could not leave his mother’s gaze for even a second. For a son of Vayu, this was galling indeed.

Perhaps it was inevitable that something would happen. Without his friends to keep him occupied, Anjaneya grew increasingly bored. While under his mother’s thumb constantly, he could do nothing but play games he had long ago mastered.

It was on a terrifically sunny day that Surya caught Maruti’s attention. He gazed upwards to find the reddish-gold orb hanging from the skies like the most delectable piece of fruit he had ever seen. On another day, he might not have misbehaved. On this, the most tedious one of them all, he decided to have it.

Right under Anjana’s nose, he found himself a spot with a clear view of the sun. He stretched his toes experimentally, as if checking that they were attached to his feet, and would do as he asked. He spread his arms wide, bent his knees, leant forward ever so slightly, and before his mother could ask what on earth he was planning to do, he jumped.

How Anjaneya soared! In mere minutes he was beyond the reach of even the tallest of the trees of Kishkindha. The air rushed past him as it urged him on, and the birds he flew past squawked indignantly as they came across this intruder into their domain. Anjaneya had not a care for the earth he was rapidly leaving behind, his eyes focused only on one target: Surya.

For his part, Surya did not even notice Anjaneya until well after he jumped. His thoughts were occupied with far loftier considerations than the possibility that a monkey would jump at him from the ground far beneath him. So when he spared a glance downward, just to see that all was well in the world, he was in for quite a shock. Approaching him at a dangerously fast clip was a small but powerful vanara, and Surya panicked.

In the days before the Devas were immortal, the demon Rahu attempted to eat the sun. Though he was unsuccessful in swallowing Surya, he still remains one of his mortal enemies. So when Surya found another interloper attempting to prevent him on his journey, he cried out for help to his brother and his king.

Indra took immediate action. If Surya lost control of his chariot at that crucial moment, there would be havoc wreaked upon all the worlds. A threat to the sun was a threat to all of creation. And so he unsheathed his most powerful weapon: his Vajra. From his position in Swargaloka, he took careful aim, and in one smooth movement he threw the missile straight at Anjaneya.

Straight and true it thundered through the heavens. Before Anjaneya knew what was happening, he was struck square on the jaw by the thunderbolt.

And so he died.

*

Vayu is not made to rule. He does not care for it, and in any case he is too changeable. He mislikes responsibility and the lack of freedom that comes with it. But he is the best friend you could ask for. Ask Agni, he knows. Vayu’s loyalty is legendary. He will go to the ends of the earth and more for his friends.

Imagine, then, his wrath when his son fell from the sky. Vayu is everywhere; he is the air itself. He felt Indra’s Vajra tear through the heavens, but even his speed could not prevent the consequences. Maruti, known from then on as Hanuman, He Whose Jaw Is Broken, fell to the ground like a speeding comet. For a single second Vayu lost control, and the earth shook. Hurricanes and typhoons began to split the earth in that second, the wind taking on a fury like none had ever known. But only for a second, for after that his anger was overcome by the one thing more powerful: his grief.

Anjana felt her once-lover’s presence for a breath, and then her son was gone.

Vali felt his father’s thunderbolt, but he failed to understand its significance.

Sugriva’s eyes had not left the sun even once since he had seen the tiny speck he knew to be his friend approach his father.

Vayu took his son far and away into the deepest caverns beneath the earth, and there he stayed. In Swarga, in Bhuloka, in Patala there was not a gale, not a gust, not a breeze. The waves fell upon the shore, the sun continued his journey across the horizon, the rains fell from the sky, but there was not a single stirring of air. Vayu’s sorrow was more deadly than his fury.

Unable to take a breath, men began choking. Plants withered, unable to prosper. The Devas were immortal, and the Asuras masters of pain and torture, but Manu’s line died like ants.

It was in this dire scenario that men turned to the gods. They begged, they pleaded, and even as they died they prayed to their saviours, until even the most hardhearted of them could not simply stand by.

The Devas went to Meru, which is the abode of Brahma, the Four Faced Creator. In front of Prajapati even Indra bowed in obeisance, and there he implored his creator and father to take pity. Though he had brought this folly upon the world, he asked Brahma to console Vayu, that the earth might breathe once more. And in his infinite compassion, Brahma agreed.

Together they travelled to the subterranean realm in which Vayu wept for his son. Clutching his child's broken body, he was a far cry from the proud god he once was. And in seeing him, Brahma was overcome by remorse for his son.

And so Brahma summoned Yama from his realm beneath the Earth, and ordered him to release the soul of Vayu’s son. He blessed Anjaneya with intelligence and strength beyond what he already possessed. Indra gave him invulnerability to all weapons in war. Surya taught him the wisdom of the stars. And having already been brought back from Yama’s grasp once, the god of death begrudgingly granted him the ability to choose the time and the place of his next, and final, end.

But Hanuman’s antics would only grow worse as a result of his divine blessings, so Brahma also cursed him with forgetfulness: that he would not know the limits of his own strength until another had told him of them.

From then on they called him Hanuman, He of the Broken Jaw, and Maruti, the son of the Wind, and though he never knew it, when Vayu spoke with Anjana, they always called him Little Mischief.

And so Hanuman grew up, without the knowledge that was already his. At odd moments he would find himself looking up at the sky, wondering what it would be like to fly through it, before dismissing it as an idle fancy. Every so often Anjana would look at him with incredible sadness and relief, and Anjaneya (whom everyone now called Hanuman, though no one knew exactly why) was baffled by those moments.

It was not until he met a pair of brothers from Ayodhya that his memory started to come back to him. It was not until he met Rama that he truly grew into his legacy as the Indestructible Monkey.

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